Back in 1971, a year before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein put their bylines on their first story about a little hotel yclept Watergate, Philip Roth’s vitriolic anger towards the Nixon administration led him to publish Our Gang, a book-length satire of the 37th U.S. president. A political fantasia, the book concluded with a chapter about Nixon’s campaign against Satan for the leadership of Hell. The estimable Dwight Macdonald reviewed the book in the New York Times, calling it “far-fetched, unfair, tasteless, disturbing, logical, coarse and very funny — I laughed out loud 16 times and giggled internally a statistically unverifiable amount. In short, a masterpiece.”
Roth’s book appeared during a particularly virile period of American satire, especially that of the Menippean variety. In 1971, William Gaddis and Joseph Heller were working on their second novels (J R and Something Happened, respectively), which were arguably more vitriolic than their first; Terry Southern had just published Blue Movie; and the National Lampoon had just entered its early golden period. These days, satire is alive and well in too many places to be mentioned here — but not, interestingly enough, in bookstores.
The Trump period has yet to be limned by a novelist of Philip Roth’s caliber, and though the 45th U.S. president has already tried to characterize Bob Woodward’s Fear as a work of fiction, almost everybody else is happy to keep it on the non-fiction shelves. This has led me to take just a few minutes to daydream: if some writers appear to be prescient in terms of their cultures, what books, primarily satiric in intent, of the recent and not-so-recent past might have warned us about the political culture we face today?
Off the top of my head, below are just a few novels and fewer non-fiction screeds, well-thumbed on my shelves, that seem to have predicted our current crisis; alas, as satire, they’re not obligated to provide solutions. (That current crisis itself is covered in some detail by Mr. Woodward and in fine books by Edward Luce, Timothy Snyder, and others.) Some of these address the kind of culture that leads to the creation and emergence of a Donald Trump; some address the kind of culture that leads people to vote for and support him. I’ve tried to avoid the obvious (George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis), first because I’m not quite convinced that they’re as germane as some people think, but also because they rank fairly low in terms of laughs. I’ve limited these to the twentieth century, but only reluctantly. Readers are welcome to offer their own candidates in the comments section below.
- Terry Southern: The Magic Christian
- William Gaddis: J R and Carpenter’s Gothic
- Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death
- Joseph Heller: Catch-22 and Something Happened
- Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism
- Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Schweik
- Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night
- Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies